Oman day nine
17.02.2019 - 17.02.2019
Camels on the road near Mirbat
Despite my tiredness I had taken some time to fall asleep last night, partly at least because of the noise of city traffic from the road outside which was quite busy even at that late hour. But eventually I did sleep, and slept quite well, although woke up earlier than necessary and than I would have liked.
Walking to breakfast along the hotel’s wide marble-floored corridors only strengthened our first impressions that it was rather a strange place. It reminded me a little of the old Soviet hotels we had stayed in many years ago in Moscow and what was then Leningrad - I half-expected to see a floor attendant at the table near the lifts! The decorative details however definitely owed more to the Middle East than to Eastern Europe, and unlike those Soviet hotels this one was very new, clean and shiny.
Corridors of the Haifa House Hotel, with decorative tiling
And when we arrived in the restaurant on the third floor it was to find it deserted, although breakfast should have been well under way. There was a Marie Celeste air about the place, with all the tables set and plentiful hot and cold food on offer, but no diners! One other man did appear when we were half way through our meal, but no one else. Disappointingly the coffee was instant, and the mango juice canned, but we both found something that appealed to us to eat.
The deserted breakfast room
At 8.30 we met up with our guide for the day, Hussain, and what an excellent guide he was to prove to be - very flexible and eager to give us a good day out that matched our interests, and full of fascinating bits of information.
The plan was to explore sights to the east of the city in the morning and to the west in the afternoon. Our first destination was Taqah, a sardine fishing village, where we stopped briefly to take some photos of the beach.
The beach at Taqah
Nearby Hussain showed us some replicas of the type of home used in this region in the past. I asked him when these homes would have been in use and was surprised to be told that it was as recently as 1970, the year which brought such significant change to Oman. This was the year when the present sultan, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said, overthrew his father in a bloodless coup and set about modernising the country.
Replica of a typical old home
Animals would have lived in a shelter like this
Boat at the replica dwellings site
Although oil had already been discovered here in the 1960s, under the old sultan’s repressive regime the people of the country did not get any real economic benefits from the early years of oil production. At the point when Qaboos assumed power, Oman was considered one of the most technologically and educationally deprived countries in the world. In the first 25 years of his reign it moved from a largely feudal society (hence the primitive huts) to a rapidly developing modern one. In 1970 the country had just three schools (all private) with a total of 900 students (all boys). By 1995 it had more than 1,002 schools with 481,100 students, of whom nearly half were girls. Literacy climbed from near zero to 41% (much higher among the under 30s). In 1970 Oman had six miles of paved roads. By 1995 there were 22,800 miles of paved roads, including multi-lane highways making it possible to drive in a single day from Muscat to Salalah – a journey that would have necessitated two weeks by camel caravan a quarter of a century before.
It was only now that we had travelled to the south ourselves and started to talk about Oman’s recent past with Hussain (who like ourselves is old enough to remember the 1960s, prior to the coup), that I began to really appreciate how rapidly and radically the country had changed.
The entrance to Taqah Castle
We visited the small and nicely restored Taqah Castle. This was built in the 19th century as a private residence for a local tribal leader, Sheikh Ali bin Taman Al Ma’shani – grandfather of the mother of Sultan Qaboos. It became the property of the government in the first half of the 20th century, under the previous sultan, although it continued to be used as the office and residence of the Wali of Taqah until 1970. It was expanded during the 1960s with the addition of an outer wall with four towers, and fully restored to be opened as a museum in 1994, to mark the Omani Year of Heritage.
The museum here documents traditional life in Oman – farming, cooking, home life and costume etc. The entrance room is known as the Barza – this is where visitors would wait for an audience with the sheikh. Here Hussain pointed out the traditional burner for frankincense, upon which much of the economy of this Dhofar region is based. He explained how every Omani home burns this fragrant resin daily, and also talked about the rather different purpose of incense, which traditionally is used by women to fragrance their clothing – they burn the incense and drape their clothes on a wooden framework directly above it.
In the Barza
Hussain with frankincense burner
From here we went into the courtyard where an old Indian Almond tree grows, along with a number of palms. The various rooms opening off this courtyard on the ground floor house displays on themes such as ‘crafts’, ‘costume’ and ‘farming’. Of these I enjoyed the costume displays the most.
In the courtyard
But what I liked much more were the rooms on the upper floor, furnished as they would have been when this was the sheikh’s home. In the Wali’s bedroom we saw the traditional curtained bed and displays of pottery that would have been collected, through trade, from places such as China, India, Europe and Zanzibar. Clothing hung from a peg on the wall next to the bed and Hussain persuaded me to dress up as an Omani woman and pose with him!
Also on this floor is the children’s room with a covered cradle. Chris asked about the large number of almost identical peacock pictures on the walls of all the rooms, but all Hussain could tell us was that it is a traditional image often seen in palaces etc.
The children's room
In the women's room
In the women’s room there are chests use to store clothing and more pottery and peacock paintings. Jewellery was hung on the walls to act as an ornamental feature when not being worn.
Sumhuram from the entrance gate
Our next stop was at the archaeological site of Sumhuram, also known as Khawr Rhori or Khor Rori. Before visiting the site itself we watched a short video, in English, which really brought the history of this former port alive. There has been a port here since the 3rd century BC, which from the 1st century BC onwards became especially significant in the export of frankincense from Oman. This site, along with two other archaeological sites in Dhofar and the reserve of Wadi Dawkah, are jointly listed by UNESCO under the title of ‘Land of Frankincense’ for their outstanding universal value. The listing states that, ‘The four components of the Land of Frankincense dramatically illustrate the trade in frankincense that flourished in this region for many centuries. They constitute outstanding testimony to the civilizations in south Arabia since the Neolithic.’
Among the ruins
The fortified town of Sumhuram was built to guard the port which lies just below on a natural inlet from the sea. Today that inlet is separated from the sea by a sand bar and is home to flamingos and many migratory birds. After watching the video we walked around the partially restored city walls with Hussain, enjoying views down to the lagoon.
View of the lagoon from Sumhuram
Flamingos in the lagoon
View from Sumhuram
Inside the old walls archaeologists were at work, led by a team from Pisa in Italy. Only last week, we were told, one of them had found an old coin here.
Archaeologists at work
We saw the small gate which led down to the port, and the much larger main gate which faced inland and had several right-angled turns to make it easier to defend. Inscriptions have been found on this gate which have helped historians piece together the story of the city and its importance to the frankincense trade. It was, as the leaflet we were given describes it, ‘a global trade hub’, a significant link in the network that linked the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Mediterranean.
The main gate
We walked through this gate to the former residential area. Only the foundations of the houses remain, but they would once have stood two stories high.
In the residential area
After exploring the ruins we drove down to the small museum near the gate where various finds from the site are exhibited. We both found the whole place fascinating - even Chris who is not often especially interested in the past!
- a little bronze lion from the 1st century BC, found in a small shrine in Sumhuram
The Tomb of Bin Ali
Our next stop was at this small white tomb, tucked into the hillside and surrounded by the tombstones of an old cemetery.
At the Tomb of Bin Ali
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Ali al Alawi, to give him his full name, is said to be descended from a son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. He was born in Yemen from where he emigrated to the nearby town of Mirbat, where he died around 1160. His tomb is a place of pilgrimage for Sunni Muslims in particular, because of this connection to the Prophet.
The Tomb of Bin Ali
Hussain had warned us that the man on duty here was often unwelcoming and barred visitors from entering the tomb. But he must have been having an exceptionally good day, as not only did he allow us to enter (shores off, naturally) but even to take a photo, despite several signs forbidding this. I was surprised when Hussain indicated that permission had been given, as we hadn’t even asked, but perhaps not as surprised as Hussain himself moments later when the man invited us to drink a coffee and offered us halwa to accompany it. Hussain had never received such a welcome here!
Inside the tomb
Signs banning photography!
Outside Hussain explained that the cemetery was still in use, despite the appearance of great age, and that many wanted to be buried here because of the proximity to the saint. He pointed out a very new gravestone as that of a lady who had died recently at the age of 115, a noted Islamic scholar.
New gravestone, Tomb of Bin Ali cemetery
As we drove to our next stop in Mirbat, Hussain told us a lot about some more recent history, when British forces supported the then-sultan in overcoming revolutionaries in a battle here in 1972. Dhofar, although part of Oman, has always had a distinct and separate identity, due in part perhaps to the very different climate. We had been surprised when Assad had driven us to the airport in Muscat yesterday to catch our flight to Salalah, when he told us that he, like many residents of the capital, takes holidays here in the summer because it is much cooler. My assumption would have been that being further south, and a few degrees hotter in winter (it was close to 30 degrees today, for instance, rather than the mid 20s we had been experiencing in and around Muscat), that the same would apply in summer. On the contrary, the mountains of this region, Jebel Dhofar, are shrouded in cloud from June to September and monsoon rains fall. Those who live on the mountains are known as jibalis and have their own culture and languages. Hussain told us he himself was from a mountain village and grew up speaking no Arabic.
On the road with Hussain
All of this is by way of background to what happened in 1962, when a tribal leader, Mussalim bin Nafl, formed a rebel group known as the Dhofar Liberation Front, supported by Saudi Arabia. They started to attack oil industry sites, government posts and also the British base in Salalah. Following an assassination attempt on the sultan in 1966 the latter took refuge in his palace in Salalah and more or less left his British allies to provide the resistance to the rebellion.
Camels near Sumhuram
The fighting was still on-going four years later when the current sultan, Sultan Qaboos, overthrew his father. One of his first priorities was to try to bring peace to Dhofar. He declared an end to the archaic status of Dhofar as the Sultan's private fief, incorporating it fully into Oman. He offered an amnesty to all who had opposed his father, but military action against those who did not accept that offer. The greatest resistance continued to be in Dhofar, so the British SAS was drafted in to help bring the rebellion to an end. They worked effectively with the sultan to win over local people by building hospitals and schools and providing access to fresh water.
While some rebels were won over and defected to the sultan’s army, forming units known as firqa. Fighting continued for some years until a decisive battle here in Mirbat, in 1972. A small group of firqa fighters and SAS troops held the British base against an attack from over 250 rebel troops (some sources say 400), who suffered heavy losses. After this they were never as effective and lost more support. Over the next few years many surrendered, while others sought sanctuary in neighbouring Yemen. The rebellion was finally declared at an end in January 1976.
Frankincense tree near Sumhuram
All of this was new to us and was very useful context for our visits to some of the places around Salalah, as well as to our overall impressions of Oman.
Our first stop in Mirbat was at the old port, no longer much used, where a few rusty canons point out to sea.
The view from Mirbat Castle
Canons at Mirbat Castle
Next to the canons is Mirbat’s castle, which was at the heart of the battle. Like Tarqa it has been well (and only very recently) restored. This was another interesting visit, and a further example of how Oman is developing its tourist infrastructure. The castle, which is free to visit, displays its artefacts attractively in a series of themed rooms, while an audio guide in multiple languages can be triggered in each room to give you as much information as you might want, or left silent according to preference.
Model of a dhow
Chest and coffee pots
Displays focused on life in the region, as at Tarqa, but there was more of a museum feel here, with jewellery displayed in glass cases, for instance, and none of the rooms furnished as they might have been historically, as we had seen there. But there were costumes showing the variations among the different tribes of the region, a beautiful model dhow, colourful cushions piled high in a storeroom, household goods such as pottery and coffee pots, and a lot of information boards covering topics including Oman’s wildlife.
Costume and cushions
We didn’t spend long here however, as we had already seen similar objects at Tarqa, and had heard explanations about them there from Hussain. Instead we drove through the deserted village, stopping in the centre for a few photos. This village was abandoned after the battle but a few houses are now being restored. Most of the villagers however now live in modern houses nearby.
Old houses in Mirbat
Building details, Mirbat
The gate to the village has been restored and I think may have had Dutch support as information boards on its supporting columns describe how Mirbat was selected by an open-air museum in Nijmegen as the model for its Arabic village. I think the signs must refer to the Museumpark Orientalis which started life as a Christian museum bringing the sights of the Holy Land to people unlikely to ever visit it but has since expanded to cover Judaism and Islam too.
The restored gate, and Hussain in Mirbat
After a short walk in the old village Hussain drove over to the newer part and its fishing port, where we had a pleasant stroll along the jetty. Here we saw fishermen landing their catch of small sharks and lots of sea birds. I was rather taken by the attractive Sooty gulls.
We had good views across to the old town and beach from here.
Views of Mirbat from the fishing port
Hussain explained that the smaller boats were used by Omanis, while the larger dhows, although owned by Omanis, were usually crewed by Bengalis who were happier than locals to be at sea for days on end.
Traditional dhows in Mirbat
Catch of the day - shark
Dhofar’s Desert Rose
In the museum at Sumhuram I had spotted and commented on some photos of an unusual plant, and Hussain now offered to take us to see some growing, in a break from the planned itinerary. He explained that he had only recently learned where they grew, after driving a Swiss botanist to the spot when he came to Salalah expressly to see them, and that the botanist had considered them rare enough to be an exciting sight. While knowing nothing about botany, I do love flowers (who doesn't?!) and photographing them, and we were both intrigued to be able to see such a rarity.
Hussain didn’t know their name, but he did take us straight to the right spot, just a little way off the main road west of Mirbat. I have since searched for information about this plant online and believe this must be Adenium dhofarense which is endemic to the Dhofar coast of Oman and the adjacent mountains of Yemen. It is related to Adenium obesum, the Desert Rose, but considered different enough to be a distinct species. And not only was it exciting to see this endemic species, the plant also proved to be very photogenic, with stumpy bulbous trunks reminiscent of a baobab tree and very pretty flowers.
We were learning that Hussain liked to be a bit flexible with the itinerary and suggest places that might interest us, and we were happy to go along with his suggestions as he clearly knows this area well. The newer fishing port in Mirbat had not been on the programme proposed by our tour company, and of course the detour to see the Adenium dhofarense was also an extra. Now he suggested another detour, to Wadi Darbat, which he said it would be a shame not to see while in the area. As before we agreed, and found ourselves being driven up and over a ridge in the mountains to a surprisingly verdant valley, although Hussain told us that in the summer months, when the Dhofar region experiences monsoon rains, the mountains all around these parts are cloaked in green.
We soon saw the reason for the relative lushness here, even in these winter months, as a river runs through the valley. We stopped at a spot where it had formed a beautiful blue-green pool ringed with small waterfalls, its waters then feeding a larger waterfall below. The pool was fuller than is usual at this time of year, said Hussain, because of heavy rains two months ago.
Waterfalls at Wadi Darbat
After taking our photos here we drove on to the head of the valley, but although the scenery was pretty it couldn’t compete with the pools lower downstream so I took relatively few photos here, although I was struck by the lovely yellow flowers growing in abundance.
At the end of the drive, Wadi Darbat
This is a popular destination for Omanis visiting Salalah in the summer monsoon season, known as Khareef, as the lake offers swimming and boating in a pretty setting along with facilities such as restaurants and picnic places.
Lunch in Salalah
From Wadi Darbat we drove back to Salalah, avoiding the camels!
On the road back to Salalah
We had lunch at a restaurant in town, confusingly named both China Palace and The Curry. The décor was pure Chinese, the food mainly Indian but with one Chinese dish to add to the confusion - rice, garlic naan, vegetable curry, chicken masala curry and (the Chinese touch) beef with vegetables. Despite, or perhaps because of, the culture clash, the food was excellent – the best lunch we ate in Oman for sure, and one of the best meals.
China Palace / Curry restaurant
I worked out later that a Chinese restaurant called China Palace had recently been taken over by another one elsewhere in town, called The Curry, hence the double branding!
A controversial highway
After lunch we saw something of the area west of the city. We drove out past the port which is run by Danish company Maersk, and along the coast.
The coast road west of Salalah
A detour into the mountains to see frankincense trees was part of the agenda, but Hussain first took us further along the road in order to show us the engineering achievements of the British company which built it. He told us that company belonged to Margaret Thatcher’s son, Mark, and that this project was cited as an example of how he benefitted unfairly from association with his mother. Hussain added however that Omanis were grateful for the British engineering skills that had made this road possible.
The major road project
I did some searching after our return as I hadn’t been aware of any involvement by Mark Thatcher in Oman, although I of course knew about his reputation in general. I found that there was indeed some scandal involving him in the awarding of a construction contract in the early 1980s, although that appears to have been for the building of a university in Oman, not a road. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this project too had been somehow connected! And our detour certainly gave us an opportunity to not only admire the engineering of this road but also enjoy another spectacular Omani landscape.
Mountain landscape near Salalah
On the way back to the coast Hussain stopped by one of the frankincense trees (Latin name Boswellia sacra) so we could get a closer look, and showed us how the valuable resin seeps from the trunk once the bark has been (expertly) stripped back.
Hussain by a frankincense tree, and the resin oozing out
The story of the Dhofar region is inextricably linked to this one tree and the wealth that flowed from trading its resin – a historical precursor to the more recent history of oil in this part of the world perhaps?
Landscape with frankincense trees
As we drove back towards the coast Hussain stopped once more and invited us to follow a short track up a ridge. Camels were grazing on the rocky slopes around us, and at the top we were treated to a view of a beautiful cove below us. Its white sand and turquoise waters would not look out of place on a Caribbean island!
Camels by the sea
Looking down on the cove
Looking in the other direction, towards Salalah, we could see Mughsail Beach and the coastline beyond, while inland were more of those stunning mountain views.
The view east
And looking inland
Our final stop of the day was by the white sand beach of Mughsail. It is famous locally for the blow-holes in the rocks below Marneef Cave at its western end, although at this time of year they don’t do a lot of blowing! We did hear the sea roaring below us when we walked up to the point, and felt the rush of air into the passageways, but no water appeared during the time we were watching.
Cliffs at Mughsail
The main attraction here for me was the beautiful line of cliffs beyond the point.
Coastal views near Mughsail
After spending a little time taking photos, we rejoined Hussain who had waited for us in the café near where he had parked. He suggested a drink so we both enjoyed a lemon mint while he had a coffee. We wanted to treat him, but he insisted on treating us, as his guests. We sat for quite a while over our drinks. It was a really pleasant way to round off our day out, sitting in a place with such a beautiful view and chatting about this and that – the rapid changes in Oman in recent times, the benefits of travel in promoting tolerance, his time living in England and more.
Chris and Hussain in the cafe at Mughsail
When we said goodbye to Hussain back at our hotel, both he and we were hoping that he would be allocated as our guide for our city tour the day after tomorrow (spoiler alert - he was!)
Dinner at Baalbek
After a week of hotel buffets, it was a bit of a treat this evening to be able to choose a restaurant to visit and to choose from a menu once there, as our stay at Haifa House was on a B&B basis. On reading online reviews I had picked out a Lebanese restaurant, Baalbek, as a promising option – the prices seemed reasonable and the food sounded good. It was just a little too far to walk, so we asked the receptionist to order a taxi for 8.00 PM. Our driver was prompt and tried only half-heartedly to charge more than Hussain had told us was the going rate. Incidentally, when we had consulted him about taxis earlier, Hussain had offered to come and pick us up to take us to the restaurant this evening, but we had of course declined as we had no intention of putting him to that much trouble!
The restaurant proved to be as good as I had heard. We sat on the terrace outside and enjoyed starters of hummus and moutabel followed by lamb kebab with thyme for me, and one of chicken marinated in yoghurt for Chris. There was a complementary plate of watermelon and small cups of sweet Omani tea for dessert, and the bill for the two of us was just around £18.
Hummus and moutabel
The taxi driver who had brought us here turned up on spec just as we were paying the bill, so of course we rewarded his business endeavour by choosing him for our ride back to the hotel – the end of a full and excellent day!